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What Is A Media Lab?

situated practices in media studies

Category / Interviews

An Interview with Emmanuel Guez at PAMAL Lab, Avignon, France

1) PAMAL [Preservation & Art – Media Archaeology Lab] is probably the first media archaeology lab in France – what makes it a media archaeology lab and what are the sorts of projects and activities that form the core of your activities? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your Lab or what forms […]

An Interview with Lily Diaz and Philip Dean at Media Lab Helsinki

An interview with Lily Diaz-Kommonen and Philip Dean of the Media Lab Helsinki in Aalto.

Can you tell us about the background and emergence of the Media Lab Helsinki?

Lily Diaz: The Media Lab Helsinki came into being in 1994. It was formed by merging the existing resources of the Computer-aided photography lab led by Philip Dean and the IMI (Image Media Institute), an experimental unit created in 1992 to investigate high-end 3D animation and 3D computer-aided design (and provide master’s-level education in those areas). Because there was a need to create an academic unit that would concentrate on the potential of digital technologies to transform media and create new markets for new media content, a discussion ensued (involving the Ministry and other key players in the Finnish education scene) as to where to host such an environment. At the time there seemed to be a desire to focus on the education of new media content developers as well as to further develop collaborative applied research with Finnish industry. These orientations might have played a role in the decision about where to locate the unit, so that it was eventually placed at the University of Art and Design Helsinki (Taideteollinen korkeakoulu).

Originally the Media Lab project received three years additional funding from the ministry. This institution – that in 2010 became the School of Arts, Design and Architecture at Aalto University – has deep roots in the history of Finnish design, from having been the descendant of the School of Craft and Arts, initially based in the venerable Ateneum building during the late 19th Century.

The Lab opened its doors in 1994 and was a key partner is hosting the 4th International Society of Electronic Arts (ISEA) Conference. The Conference itself was a highlight, featuring the best and latest [research and innovations from] the international electronic arts/media culture scene.

The initial team at the Media Lab Helsinki [was] comprised [of] Philip Dean, Kari-Hans Kommonen, Isto Männistö and, later, Minna Tarkka.

Having [just] started the master’s studies program in the previous year, the Lab did not have a post-graduate program of studies when I arrived as a doctoral student and researcher in 1995. Post-graduate studies were done independently with tutoring by professors in the departments of Design and of Art Education where postgraduate programs and communities of researchers already had existed since the late 1980s.

Art and design research is certainly not a new endeavour. What is new is the growing trend by which artists and designers have become involved in research activities as part of their practice, cultivating and acquiring a voice as researchers and with an understanding of their role as creators of primary sources.

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An Interview with Rob Duarte, director of the REBOOT Laboratory

REBOOT operates at the edge of visual art and something akin to scientific inquiry. We exist in a research university and part of the concept of the lab is to have our work creep into traditional research venues. In this way, we might be able to subtly inject critical, subversive, political ideas into contexts that might otherwise be driven by the apolitical pursuit of strictly technical knowledge.

In addition to founding the REBOOT Lab, Rob Duarte is an artist and an assistant professor in the Department of Art at Florida State University.

What is your lab called and where is it?

REBOOT Laboratory lives in the Facility for Arts Research (FAR) at Florida State University. In addition to directing the lab, I’m also an Assistant Professor and Digital Media area head in the FSU Department of Art.

What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?

From the website:

REBOOT is a laboratory that looks toward our culture’s production of waste as a point of departure for a critical engagement with technology. Our approach is rooted in the visual arts and is driven by our collective knowledge of process, materials, and experimentation; as well as a commitment to revealing the social, political, and cultural aspects of technology.

Through collaborations with artists and researchers at FSU and beyond, REBOOT projects cast a critical eye on technoculture and the logical consequences of the ways in which we produce, consume, and discard technology. This examination of the political components of technology occurs through a hands-on process of thinking and making, with the goal of provoking discussion and action that will bring about alternative, preferred futures.

The lab has two projects at the moment: FixShop is an art project that takes the form of a repair shop storefront. Through the theatrical play of a repair shop and its employees, we accept “broken”, outmoded, and obsolete designed objects from individuals. We discuss the owner’s relationship to the object as well as their expectations and desires for the “repaired” object. The objects are rarely restored to their former function, but are instead transformed / redesigned / reinvented to become alternately humorous, contemplative, or poetic reflections on our consumer culture, the value of mass-produced vs hand-made objects, etc.

The other project is called DIY Resource Recovery and is driven by experimental research into waste products. The aim of the project is to discover low-tech ways of converting waste into useful materials for making. The focus is on finding low-tech, personal or studio-scale methods that provide a sustainable alternative to municipal recycling. The goals for this project are not related to technical efficiency or commercialization, but pure experimentation and materials-based discovery.

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An Interview with Andrew Quitmeyer of Digitial Naturalism

An interview with Andrew Quitmeyer, a PhD student at Georgia Tech whose research investigates the role that Digital Media can play for Biological Field Work. What is your lab called and where is it? Digital Naturalism – Mobile Studios Location: Anywhere (theoretically), often in tropical rainforests that we have hiked into with some field biologists and artists. […]

An Interview with Dr. Matthew Kirschenbaum of Maryland Institute for Technology

Interview by Jaime Kirtz

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH, an applied thinktank for the digital humanities). He is the author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT Press, 2008) and Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JK: Can you explain a bit about you, your role in the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and how you came to be involved?

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An Interview with Professor David Radcliffe of the CATH Lab at Virginia Tech

Interview by Rebecca Jones

Note: My recording application for this interview failed, so the information below is a compilation of the notes that I took and is not verbatim. To read more about how Professor David Radcliffe became involved with humanities computing, read this article

RJ: How did your interest in digital humanities develop?

DR: Quite pragmatically. It was before DH had become a term. I was trying to find tools to perform the research that I needed. I had bibliographies on note cards that I wanted to migrate using a word processor. From there, I started to learn SQL and other programming tools. For me it was a problem solving enterprise. It was really funny, I would have a list of 500 citations and using a word processor, 30 seconds later I would have a process that could pull up the requested items.

RJ: How did you learn your skills or programming languages?

DR: I was self‐taught, we’re talking the late 70s, early 80s. You could do a Cobalt class at community college. You had to learn it by yourself. I’m an antiquarian, so I had lots and lots of information that I needed to work with and needed to figure out how to do it.

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An Interview with Matthew Jockers

Interview by Mitch Ingraham

Dr. Matthew L. Jockers is the Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln where he currently acts as a faculty fellow in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and Director of the Nebraska Literary Lab. In addition to teaching courses, conducting seminars and workshops, and authoring numerous articles, his publications include: Text Analysis With R for Students of Literature (2014) and Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (University of Illinois Press, 2013).

Together with Franco Moretti, he co-founded and directed the Stanford Literary Lab, where he worked from 2010 to 2012. Dr. Jockers received his B.A. from Montana State University (1989), a M.A. from the University of Northern Colorado (1993), and his PhD. from Southern Illinois University (1997). His areas of interest/specialties include: Digital Humanities: text mining/text analysis, Irish and Irish American Literature, 20th Century British Literature, and Literature of the American West.

MI: When did you first become involved and interested in digital humanities: specifically as related to English literature?

MJ: Well … long before DH was ever a term, that’s how. I probably discovered that there was a field of people doing computational quantitative work in the humanities in around 1990. Between ‘90 and ‘93 really, just before the birth of the Internet. And, of course, there was no term ‘digital humanities,’ that doesn’t come along until about 2005. The people at that point called themselves computing humanists, and I certainly wasn’t part of that crowd until quite awhile later. In fact, I didn’t even really discover that there was such a crowd or organization at that point. I was in my MA program at that point. I was a literature grad student who was sort of fascinated by computers and had that as a side hobby. I got pretty savvy with the computer during my master’s program and when I went to do my PhD, my dissertation advisor learned that I had some computer savvy and he didn’t. So, he asked me to be his RA and basically bought me out of my teaching for the last two years of the four years of my PhD program. So I started working for him in 1995. Just prior to that, of course, the internet is born in about 1993. I started dabbling in HTML and those kinds of things. One of the first projects I did for him was to create a digital archive.

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An Interview with Stefan Höltgen of the Signal Lab

Nostalgia is a very important “first trigger” for re-using old/dead/vintage hardware and software. But […] nostalgia isn’t really the energy for [users’] engagement because you can’t use an “old medium”: the moment you turn it on it is totally present/in presence.

Stefan Höltgen runs the Signal Lab in Berlin as well as the Media Archaeological Fundus, founded by Wolfgang Ernst who is chair of Media Theory at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Can you start by telling us a bit about the Signal Laboratory – how did it start and what is the main function of the Lab? How does it relate to the Media Archaeological Fundus

SH: The Signal Laboratory (SL) was founded 2003 as a lab for studying media hardware and their signals by opening them and measuring frequencies, sound outputs, and voltages. When I joined the Center for Musicology and Media Studies in 2011 I began to collect vintage computer hardware, peripherals, and software for my research project (“on the archaeology of the early microcomputer and its programming”) and as examples for my teaching lessons about hardware, programming and computer history. The SL soon became a place where my colleagues and I repaired and restored those old machines to learn about their functioning. That is the main difference from the Fundus, where media archaeological artifacts are collected and restored to function in principle which means: to show how their technology work(ed).The intersection between the SL and the Fundus is the question we both ask: How do those technologies relate to their history and their presence when you don’t look at them as economical, techno-historical, or social (e.g. the effects on the user, the society …) gadgets but as “signal processing” media – where the media in the SL are mostly produce programmable digitally coded signals and those of the Fundus are of both sorts: analogue and digital – but not programmable.

Following the boom concerning “Media Labs” (at MIT and then other places too) in the 1980s, we are now building more and more Humanities Labs – some connected to Digital Humanities, some to Design, some to other sorts of Humanities spaces and activities. How does the Signal Lab relate to the broader theme of labs in contemporary humanities that are being faced with the technological (as Kittler has noted)? 

SH: There are no actual research connections to those kinds of labs. But when we come to the point of the SL as a teaching space I think we are doing basic work for people who want to work in those technologically “infected” humanities labs: We are teaching electronics, programming, and topics of the informatics/computer sciences from the viewpoint of media theory. So our students won’t become proper programmers but merely hackers that are able to estimate the technological connections between the medium (especially electronic computer) and its user.

A more specific connection lies with technological practices – critical design, DIY, the maker movement and more. Furthermore, the existence of “Fablabs” has gathered momentum over the past years in different contexts. What are the specific connections and disconnections to such labs that also engage with a “making”, hands-on approach to technology, but seem to be built on different premises (not least, around much talked about kits like 3D printers, laser cutters, and various other sorts of technologies)? 

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Interview with Brian Kane, artist and creator, VuJak

Interview by Erin Cousins

Note: This interview was conducted after Brian Kane’s visit to CU Boulder’s Media Archaeology Lab, where he demoed VuJak, the world’s first video sampler, for faculty and students. Attendees included members of Lori Emerson’s graduate English class, “Theory & Practice of Doing // From Digital Humanities to Posthumanities”. References to both the demo and the Digital Humanities class are included in the interview.

Information about Brian Kane’s current and past projects can be found at

EC: Our course this semester began with discussions of digital humanities, and while we’ve focused a lot on the role of the digital in academia, we haven’t talked about the role that it plays in art. I think that’s one place where the interaction between the digital and the human is most visible. Looking through your work it seems that there is a through-line of the interaction between the human and the digital, and how they create subjectivity…

BK: Well it’s all people to me, but you know, that’s just because as an artist, what you’re doing is talking to people. I mean, do you feel like you have a definition of what digital humanities is?

EC: Oh, the whole first quarter of the semester was trying to figure that out! We never got to a single answer…

BK: Maybe you’re best without an answer.

EC: One of the questions we got to was, “Is it really worth asking this question still or should we just be making stuff?” Should we just be doing the work, and we can worry about labeling it later?

BK: So it’s kind of project oriented?

EC: It’s turned out for a lot of us to be about making something or doing something for the final project. Jillian Gilmer and I are creating a virtual reality tour of the Media Archaeology Lab, some people are writing essays, some people are creating digital visualizations of lab spaces, and others are making creative projects like digital poetry websites, so we’re sort of covering a whole range of “What is the Digital Humanities”? But so far I don’t think anybody has gone into visual art, and I think only one project is tactile.

BK: With a lot of the students I work with it is kind of the opposite, they get lost in the digital, and you pull them out and get them working with their hands again to straighten them out.

EC: So it acts as a balance?

BK: Different people are different, and you start to get a read on people after a while and learn where they are coming from. This one amazing student, she is just this incredible fashion designer, but she was really struggling with everything electronic and digital and in the end I sort of pulled her out and I said, look, you focus on your strength and this is what you’re good at…and she made this fairly simple piece, just stunning. It defaulted back to her eye and her sense of design.

EC: With your students or with your own work, do you ever find that the only way to do the work is to collaborate? For example, if you have this person with skills in fashion and this other person with skills in tech, can putting them together be a solution?

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